People on occasion have asked me how I became executive director of a non-profit agency that provides human services in such a downtrodden place as Salinas’ Chinatown. They ask what
sustains me? What keeps me going?
Well, it’s been a long road and I’ve had many great friends, mentors and supporters along the way. I will say that I am among the lucky few that can say that I feel so blessed to be able to do what I do. And while I do get paid, the real “wins” come getting good people off the street and into housing and feeling safe.
I grew up believing most people were just like me. Lived in the suburbs. Lots of brothers and a sister. Middle class and comfortable. Spent weekends and summers on my grandparents’ farm. Went to church each Sunday. And white. I remember seeing a black person for the first time when my mother took me to the dentist in Buffalo. I stared, curious. My mother tugged me
I was also quite shy, so my world was small and I rarely strayed outside my family and my neighborhood. That would change abruptly when we moved to rural North Carolina.
We moved into a brand new subdivision out in the woods. My dad’s Sylvania TV factory (he was a quality control manager there) had just been built, seeking cheap labor, but tobacco was still King in Smithfield. My parents felt safe and insulated there so we kids were allowed to walk pretty much anywhere we wanted. I was curious so my walks took me to the center of town, where there was a drug store where you could eat, a Five & Dime where you could shop, and rows of tobacco warehouses. The person at the checkout counting my change was white. The person carrying the groceries to the car was black. Most of the laborers were black. None of my parents’ friends were. I was a pre-teen learning about racial integration in the South.
In my school, I heard there were three kinds of kids. White, black, and the “other” white kids, referred to as “white trash”. And there was a new addition, a fourth kind: Yankees. That was my designation – an outsider allowed to live inside because the town needed the electronics industry to survive (the “King” was dying). I wasn’t accepted at the white kids lunch table. I wasn’t accepted at the “other” white kids table either. So I sat with the black kids, who didn’t seem to mind. I made a friend there. We hung out after school. One
day, when I was on my bike riding home, the “other” white kids stopped me and threatened to beat me up (later I found out it was because I had a black friend.) I was terrified, so scared that I couldn’t speak or move. I was the outsider and didn’t know how to fight. The terror they achieved in me satisfied them and they never touched me, but I’ll always remember the real, palpable, emotional trauma and sense of helplessness.
I first saw homelessness in El Paso. Actually, it was in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, just across the border, where my father’s electronics plant was built (looking for cheap labor, again). He was the plant manager this time. That was back when you could easily cross the border and we did that a lot on the weekends, like tourists. As we drove down the highway, I saw people living in cardboard boxes. I had to ask to make sure I wasn’t mistaken – are they really living in boxes? That stuck with me solidly.
I went to Texas Tech in Lubbock because I wanted a degree in social work. Years of learning that although people were pretty much the same, lots were dealt disadvantages from the
starting line – institutional poverty, oppression, unemployment, prejudice, and even hatred, born of fear, for no apparent reason at all made me all the more motivated me to find some way to fight against it.
I felt the need to grow by learning about how others saw life. I felt the need to build bridges between cultures, not to tear down or dilute a culture, just create a bridge so people that were truly struggling might be understood and get some help.
After I left college, I joined the Air Force and entered into a very different kind of world. I served as an aircraft maintainer in both the regular Air Force and then the Air National Guard in California. I eventually attained the rank of master sergeant and through the Air Force I was able to experience the management of resources. I learned to prioritize. To problem-solve. To supervise.
My specialties mainly worked on keeping our nation’s largest military cargo aircraft flying — C-130s, C-5s and C-17s. For those not familiar, these are giant, multi-engined craft used by the military to ship personnel and equipment all around the world. When I signed off on the air-worthiness of an aircraft I was telling those aircrews that they would travel safely and reliably. It was a heavy responsibility but one that I came to relish.
But when I arrived at Dorothy’s in 2006, I experienced a similar but different kind of responsibility. It’s still mission-critical, but now it’s more personable. Not broken equipment I can fix with a wrench or a plan I can schedule to complete on time. Real people that come broken but aren’t necessarily fixable. Plans that take way longer than anyone can possibly anticipate.
The poor and unsheltered at Dorothy’s Place have gifted me with so much grace and humility. We have an institutional culture at Dorothy’s where we can treat people like people, not like someone to be afraid of. We can allow for momentary outbursts or even threats from people because we try to understand the trauma that comes from a disadvantaged life and a person’s need to shout to be heard.
We advocate for people that others gave up on many years ago — people that have become largely invisible in our society and have little or no say in what goes on around them. We assist them to safety and assist as they restore their humanity and lost dignity.
We can do all of this because you’ve got our backs. Grace, in an ordinary life. That’s Dorothy’s Place.
With love and gratitude,
Jill Allen is the executive director at Dorothy’s Place. She stands for grace, acceptance, and respect.
With love, respect and compassion, Dorothy’s Place provides essential services, transitional support and housing assistance to people experiencing the injustice of homelessness and extreme poverty.
Without your financial support, our work doesn’t happen. Join us! Stand with us as we assist people from street life to home life. Your solidarity is humbly and gratefully received.